American gunships destroy 'hotel' housing Taliban fighters

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The Independent Online

A Taliban "hotel" in the centre of Kabul, suspected of being used as a reception centre for international Islamist fighters arriving in Afghanistan, has been hit by American rocket fire.

Strike aircraft and, according to unconfirmed reports, Spectre helicopter gunships, took part in the attack in which dozens were said to be injured and killed.

Western military officials said the raid, on such a specific target, showed the Allies were receiving improved intelligence about the movements of the Taliban and foreign volunteers arriving in Afghanistan to join the jihad. They said further attacks would be launched against foreign Islamist fighters in the coming days to prevent reinforcements reaching the front line and as a "disincentive" to others wanting to join. There have been reports in the past few days of thousands of Pakistani volunteers, and other Muslims swelling the ranks of the Taliban and al-Qa'ida in expectation of a land war.

They normally meet in Kabul before being deployed to the front lines. Defence sources say about 5,000 Islamist fighters, mostly from Pakistan, have either crossed, or are in the process of crossing the Afghan border, bringing a variety of weapons from ancient bolt-action rifles to grenade launchers.

Truckloads of volunteers are reported to be crossingat points such Towr Kham without any attempts by Pakistani border guards to stop them. There have also been reports of dozens of four-wheel drive vehicles laden with winter supplies entering Afghanistan. The current influx has come in response to an appeal for help by the Taliban leader, Mullah Omar, and there is no evidence they are recruits for Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida network, Western officials said.

Most of the volunteers are ethnic Pashtuns who have been asked by their tribal leaders to cross the border. But there is also a recruitment drive by the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba extremist group, which was set up by the Pakistani secret service, Inter Services Intelligence.

The group has only recently switched its attention to Afghanistan from Kashmir, where it has been among the Islamist groups fighting Indian forces. A small number of Arabs and Chechens are among the jihadists. There are also believed to be a few volunteers from Western countries.

Said Maqsood, a 37-year-old refugee who recently arrived in the Pakistani border town of Peshawar from his village 45 miles north-east of Kabul, said: "Every night I saw lots of Pakistani fighters enter Afghanistan. They are dressed like the Taliban, but they are speaking Urdu."

Nadir Shah, a Northern Alliance commander said: "A lot of Pakistanis are coming into Kabul and Nejrab district, across the mountains. They are crossing the border in groups every day. They have weapons when they cross, a lot of weapons enter Afghanistan in trucks loaded with food.'

A senior diplomatic source in London said: "The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is extremely porous and we have no doubt that weapons and material is getting through and there is little we can do. The Pakistanis have stopped some Arabs from going over, but that is not happening all that much with their own people."